Are Freshmen Retention Rates a Good Indicator of a College’s Quality?

The answer may not be as clear-cut as you’re hoping, because: yes and no. But let’s break it down.

First off: what is a freshmen retention rate? It is the percentage of students who return for their second (or sophomore) year at school. For example, Vanderbilt University has a first-year retention rate of 97%. That means that only 3% of its freshmen class did not return. That’s a pretty good retention rate.

But what if a school’s rate is low? Does it mean it’s a bad school? To answer that question, let’s first look at all the reasons a student may not return for their sophomore year of school. Perhaps they just can’t afford tuition. Maybe they had a personal crisis come up. They might have switched majors and sought a school that had a different program. With a myriad of reasons, not all of them school related, it’s hard to quantify how many students failed to return because of the school itself.

So a high retention rate might really indicate the high quality of the school, but determining if a low retention rate equates to low quality is a bit trickier. Of course, if the school’s rate is really low—say, for instance, in the mid-sixty range—then that might be a red flag you should pay attention to. If nearly half of the incoming freshmen class is not returning for a second year, maybe you should do some additional research and keep some backup schools on your list.

Of course, just because a school has a high retention rate doesn’t necessarily mean that you will enjoy that school. Every student needs and expects something different from a college; so what works for many may not happen to work for you. This isn’t necessarily a fault of the school, nor a reflection of its quality, but just how well you matched with that college.

So with all that in mind, let’s circle back to the original question: are freshmen retention rates a good indicator of the quality of a school? Sort of, BUT only as a general indicator. With so many reasons as to why a student might leave, it’s hard to say whether or not the school was “to blame” when only looking on raw statistics.

If you want to find the right college match the first time, use College Raptor’s free match tool! With it, you’ll find individualized college matches perfect for you, a personalized price estimate of tuition based on potential financial aid, your acceptance odds at schools around the country given your GPA and ACT/SAT scores, and more!

Allison Wignall

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